The Ferry Crash: The Proper Tribute To A Tragedy

by Harris Silver

When the 3,300 ton Andrew J. Barberi slammed into a pier jutting off the coast of Staten Island at full speed, on October 15th 2003, the front of the boat was ripped apart like a sardine can. Ten people were killed, dozens others were critically injured. It is New York’s worst mass transit “accident” in half a century.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating. The NTSB will, no doubt, do a thorough job, and will offer safety recommendations, many of which will already be in place by the time their report is finished. However, their investigation will likely not go far enough as they will not examine the other deaths and injuries that take place under the watch of the Department Of Transportation (DOT), the agency responsible for ferry service. The NTSB will not ask the question that will lead to the real enduring changes we need to make NYC safer, which is:

Why would anyone trust an organization that can’t put up street signs properly, to run the nations second largest ferry fleet?

Initial indicators point to human error. The pilot lost control and the captain wasn’t in the pilothouse, as the rules required him to be. No other crew noticed in time. Iris Weinshall, the commissioner of the DOT, has deflected blame away from the DOT­an agency that has a long history of having little regard for human life­and has placed it exclusively on the individuals running the boat. In a press release dated October 21, Weinshall called Captain Michael Gansas’s refusal to cooperate with the NTSB “DISGUSTING”­strong public words coming from a city commissioner. The following day in another public press release commissioner Weinshall suspended Captain Gansas, who is not participating on advice of legal counsel.

Commissioner Weinshall would be doing far greater service to this city if she would concentrate her efforts on taking a good long hard look within the DOT rather than lashing out at employees who, despite DOT oversight, have an otherwise exemplary safety record.

NYC DOT is responsible for: Installing and maintaining street signs, traffic signals, and streetlights, resurfacing streets, repairing potholes, installing and maintaining parking meters, managing municipal parking facilities, maintaining hundreds of bridges including the East River bridges, and operating the Staten Island Ferry.  It is a mammoth city agency stretched thin to the point of complete incompetence.

On paper the DOT’s mission is a great one but this agency effectively operates outside of its mandated mission and puts the movement of motor vehicles above the quality of life of city residents. In a meeting with top DOT managers, none of them could cite the agency's mission statement, meaning this is an agency run by people who don’t know what their job is. NYC deserves better.

Exacerbating the situation is that commissioner Weinshall is neither a trained engineer, an urban planner, an architect, a transportation maven, nor a visionary. Her main qualification seems to be her ability to thrive in a hydra-headed bureaucracy. She is new enough in her position where she isn’t held accountable for all of the agencies failures. However, she has been at her job long enough to demonstrate a decided inability to lead this city with ideas, innovation and vision. Like many commissioners before her, she has a windshield perspective, which means she sees the problems of her agency through the interior of an automobile. This is not exactly the intelligent (or democratically responsible) way to see things when 90% of Manhattan residents don’t own cars. Her marriage to career politician, Senator Chuck Schumer, has the distinct foul aroma of political nepotism. As the head of the D.O.T. it is commissioner Weinshall who should take responsibility for what happened and be held accountable.

The fact that there was no oversight of the pilothouse after ferries have been identified as potential terrorist targets is a clear signal that the public cannot trust this dangerously run, insular, out-of-touch agency. The cold hard reality is there are post 9/11 security reasons why allocating space for the efficient movement of emergency vehicles in our city has a more pressing need than ever before. And, it is crystal clear to everyone living in New York during 9/11 and more recently with the Northeast blackout on August 13th, 2003, that there is a need for an infrastructure that can support the pedestrian evacuation of Manhattan. The DOT has not even publicly identified these needs, let alone begun to address them in a meaningful way. What, exactly are they waiting for?

The claim might be made that it is far easier to be critical than constructive.  So let us make a concrete proactive recommendation that we feel is essential to the long-term well being of our city: